Tales of the Sausage Factory

No, the FTC CANNOT Have A Ban On All ISP Blocking.

In my last post, took the 4 most famous net neutrality violations to see how they would come out under the current rules adopted in 2015 v. how they would come out under the regulatory framework following the FCC vote to repeal net neutrality rules, based on the draft Order. To condense the approximately 5500 word analysis — all 4 incidents are addressable under the 2015 rules. None of the incidents are addressable under the combined Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and antitrust regime that remains after the vote to repeal the rules, with the exception of Comcast’s deliberate deception about their blocking peer-2-peer protocols in 2007-08.

 

Since most folks won’t plow through 5500 words of legal analysis, I’ve gotten some requests to specifically address the claims by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and others that the FTC can address blocking as easily as the FCC and prevent any ISP from blocking any content or application. My short answer is: “No. The FTC CANNOT have a “no blocking” rule like the FCC has today. The FTC may stop an ISP from blocking content or services when it can prove that the blocking violates the antitrust laws, or that the blocking violates the ISP’s published terms of service, or if the ISP blocking causes (or is likely to cause) substantial harm to consumers and is not outweighed by countervailing benefits. And, as I covered extensively in my previous post, proving these things can be hard.

 

My somewhat longer answer, laid out in more detail below, is that Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act, 15 USC 45, simply cannot do what Section 201(b) and Section 202(a) of the Communications Act (47 U.S.C. 201(b) & 202(a)) can do. The two statutes are designed and interpreted very differently. The FTC has very broad jurisdiction but fairly limited authority because it is a very generalist agency. More importantly, it is purely an enforcement agency — designed to prosecute companies from doing what I will refer to here as “bad stuff.” Note, it is not even designed to prevent companies from doing the bad stuff in the first place. It is designed purely to enforce a fairly general consumer protection statute. In particular, the FTC Act Amendments of 1994 severely limited the FTC’s enforcement authority by adding Section 5(n), which requires the FTC to overcome certain obstacles before it can find conduct “unfair” and thus unlawful under Section 5(a).

 

By contrast, Congress designed the FCC to ensure that our critical communications infrastructure functions in a consistent and stable manner and to explicitly promote all kinds of industrial policy like innovation, universal service, affordability, and to ensure that telecommunications services operate in a manner that serves “the public convenience and necessity.” This is critical because we don’t generally require businesses to serve the public interest, we limit this requirement to a fairly small number of specific industries that are absolutely critical to the functioning of our economy and important in our daily lives. As a result, in contrast to the FTC, the FCC has very broad authority over telecommunications services but virtually no authority over other stuff — like information services.

 

As I explain below, this makes it literally impossible for the FTC to simply prohibit blocking (let alone prohibit “fast lanes” or “slow lanes”) as the FCC does. To the contrary, under the FTCA, the FTC cannot prevent a broadband carrier from blocking any website, application or service it chooses unless it can prove that this blocking (a) causes (or is likely to cause) “substantial injury” to consumers, (b) there is no other way the consumer could reasonably avoid the harm, and (c) there are no countervailing consumer benefits. While Section 5(n) does allow the FTC to consider “established public policies as evidence to be considered with all other evidence. Such policy considerations may not serve as the primary basis” for a finding of unfairness. So even if we assume that there is an “established public policy” against blocking, that alone does not allow the FTC to stop a broadband provider from blocking content or applications.

 

And all this, of course, assumes the FTC even has authority to deal with broadband carriers reclassified as information services, which remains up in the air at the moment pending the Ninth Circuit resolution of the en banc rehearing of FTC v. AT&T Mobility.

 

I explain all this in more detail below . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Can the FTC Really Handle Net Neutrality? Let’s Check Against the 4 Most Famous Violations.

I have been personally involved in just about every major network neutrality issue since this began as “open access” in 1998. It gives me a somewhat different perspective than others, I expect. For one thing, I actually remember the various network neutrality violations we’ve had over the years — and how the FCC previously expected to address them.

 

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s proposed draft Order repealing net neutrality is, without doubt, the most dramatic and radical about face committed on this matter in the almost 20 years this issue has percolated. Among other things, it completely renounces any FCC oversight over the behavior of broadband providers. Back in 2002, when Chairman Michael Powell’s FCC issued the Cable Modem Declaratory Ruling, defenders of the FCC’s action dismissed the claim that the FCC was abandoning all regulatory oversight of broadband as “fear mongering.” Now, of course, Pai insists that the draft Order simply resets the clock to the golden age of 2014, and that those who insist the FCC ever exercised authority over last-mile broadband are “fear mongering.” To paraphrase Inigo Montoya of the Princess Bride, ‘you keep using that phrase. I do not think it means what you think it means.’

 

In particular, Pai and defenders of the draft Order insist that a combination of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Section 5 (15 U.S.C. 45), state consumer protection law, and anti-trust law will provide more than adequate protection for consumers and anyone who doubts this is — you guessed it — fear mongering. Happily, we do not need to speculate on this entirely. We can simply apply the proposed rules in the draft Order and the protections cited by the draft Order and its defenders and apply them to the four most significant network neutrality violations on record.

 

(1) The 2013-14 “peering dispute” between Netflix and the four largest broadband Internet access service (BIAS) providers — Comcast, Time Warner Cable (now Charter), AT&T and Verizon;

(2) The 2012 decision by AT&T to limit Facetime to the highest tier plan on its mobile service;

(3) The 2007-08 blocking of peer-2-peer (p2p) applications such as BitTorrent by Comcast;

(4) The 2005 blocking of Vonage VOIP calls by the ISP Madison River.

 

It’s worth noting as we begin the analysis that, while the draft Order does not discuss the Netflix/BIAS peering dispute at all, it does discuss the other 3 and explain why they were (a) not a big deal, and (b) would probably be permitted under the FCC’s new approach. But lets run through the exercise on our own. As discussed below, under the existing 2015 rules, the FCC can address and resolve each of these. Under the FTC/State consumer protection law/Sherman Act approach, the only one of these actions subject to any sanction is the 2008 Comcast/BitTorrent blocking, and even then only for the misrepresentations to customers denying its “network management” decision to disrupt p2p traffic. Assuming Comcast actually admitted to blocking/degrading p2p traffic when initially confronted in 2007, neither the FTC nor any of the other proposed remedies would have ended Comcast’s “network management practice.”

 

This result should not surprise us. After all, not only does the draft Order explicitly cover the 2012 AT&T/Facetime, 2008 Comcast/p2p fight, and the 2005 Madison River VOIP blocking and explain why they should have been permissible rather than subject to “heavy handed” FCC enforcement, but those defending the current draft Order as the Nirvana of “light touch” regulation defended each of these BIAS actions as entirely within the rights of the BIAS provider and an unwarranted interference on the part of the FCC. Whether or not one agrees that these actions were appropriate network management/market negotiation decisions by broadband providers, no one can deny the rules adopted in 2015 expressly prohibits these four incidents whereas the rules in the draft Order expressly permit them.

 

More detail below . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Our Modern Thanksgiving Celebrates The End of Slavery, Not Plymouth Rock.

I have written previously in defense of remembering the First Thanksgiving, and the brief period that followed when the new immigrants and the Massachusetts tribes lived together in mutual respect and tolerance.  As I said then, I believe that ignoring the first 30 years in which the Wampanoag tribes and the original English settlers of Plymouth Colony strove to work together ignores both that a better world was possible and that we can chose to create a better world.

 

But for those who dislike celebrating the First Thanksgiving, I draw your attention to the fact that our modern holiday of Thanksgiving has nothing to do with the First Thanksgiving at Plymouth Colony and is instead the result of Lincoln’s proclamation calling for a Day of Thanksgiving following the Union victory at the Battle of Gettysburg.

 

Gettysburg was the definitive victory of the Union in the Civil War — although that was by no means clear at that time. it marked the high water mark of Confederate military advance and the beginning of consistent Union counter-attack. Ultimately, it was critical to the end of slavery in the United States.

 

For all the failures of Reconstruction, for all that racism and the legacy of slavery persists to this day, there can be no doubt that the victory of the Union over the Confederacy and the end of the institution of slavery in the United States is a cause for which to be thankful. Whether you focus on the slaves who escaped to join the Union army, or the free black volunteers who endured discrimination in the ranks, or simply because our nation survived what Lincoln rightly called the test of whether any nation conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, there is much for which to be thankful. It is the counsel of cynicism and bitterness to reject the good — or fail to acknowledge it — because evil and injustice have not been banished from the Earth. For if the defeat of the Confederacy and the end of slavery are not causes for which we should all be thankful, then that word has no meaning.

 

Stay tuned . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

The DOJ’s Case Against AT&T Is Stronger Than You Think — Again.

I want to start by applauding Randal Stephenson for coming out quickly and denying the rumors that DoJ asked them to sell CNN as the price of getting the merger done. At the same time, however, he acknowledged that negotiations were “complicated,” and that he and recently confirmed Asst A.G. for Antitrust Makan Delrahim were still “getting to know each other” and “figure out the ask on the other side of the table.” He also made it clear that, if DoJ does challenge, AT&T is prepared to go to court and are confident they will win.

 

AT&T is generally pretty good at persuading everyone that DoJ doesn’t really have a case against them. As folks may recall, despite the fact that the proposed AT&T/T-Mo transaction violated just about every basic tenant of existing antitrust law, AT&T managed to convince everyone for the longest time that DoJ was just playing hardball with them and didn’t really mean it because DoJ didn’t really have a case. While Stephenson refused to discuss what was negotiated, the rumors suggest it was a demand to divest either DIRECTV or the Turner Broadcasting cable channels (which include CNN, as well as TNT, HBO and a bunch of other real popular programming.) Once again, you have antitrust experts who do not have any particular experience with cable mergers shaking their heads and predicting that DoJ has no case.

 

In  fact, demanding divestiture of either the must have content or the DIRECTV distribution platform is precisely the remedy you would expect if you believe the deal presents significant harm because of the vertical integration issues. That’s been the position of my employer, Public Knowledge, which has opposed the transaction since AT&T announced the deal. (That predates Trump’s election, for those of you wondering.) If you want a more detailed understanding of the theory of the harms, you can find it in my boss Gene Kimmelman’s testimony to Congress here. While generally true that vertical deals are hard to challenge, the cable industry has long been something of an exception, and the remedy here is similar to what the FTC imposed on the AT&T/Turner deal in 1996, where the FTC imposed stock divestitures and restructuring to eliminate the voting interest of John Malone and Liberty Media because of Malone/Liberty’s ownership TCI, which was then the largest cable operator in the United States (25% national market share). Given the massive criticism of “behavioral” remedies and a call to return to “structural” remedies from the right and the left, it’s unsurprising that DoJ would want actual divestiture rather than go the Comcast/NBCU consent decree route.

 

But as Stephenson noted, negotiations have only just begun in earnest, so we may end up with behavioral remedies after all. We’ll see.

 

I dig into details below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

How DEA Got It’s Revenge For Getting Called On Abusing Authority — And Why This Will Make Things Like Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Harder

I love neither DEA or PhARMA, but the business about Congress passing a last year to make it “harder for DEE to stop drug companies selling drugs to drug dealers” is a load of crap. Or, perhaps more accurately, it is a brilliant example of how the DEA and other police organizations retaliate against lawmakers who curb their authority when they abuse it, and how an easily manipulatable press and easily manipulatable public eats it up with a spoon.
 
Here’s the infamous 2016 final statute. If you click through to the text, and then look at the statute amended (21 U.S.C. 824), you will observe that what the 2016 statute did was require that before DEA arbitrarily stripped companies of their license to ship controlled substances (like opioids), they had to (a) identify what law they thought was being broken, and (b) had to show that there was a real likelihood the drugs would be diverted for misuse, rather than just arbitrarily decide that hospital X or pharmacy Y had already received “too much” Oxycontin for the month. 
 
As usual, explaining something like this is complicated. Short version, the bill curbed a bunch of nasty abuses by the DEA. Of course PhARMA spent millions to get it passed. DEA is obscenely powerful and their abuses in this regard are fairly disruptive and legendary in the pharmacy and hospital world. And the thorough nature of their revenge here shows how DEA gets away with it. By spinning a bill that curbed DEA’s extra-legal abuses as a corrupt bargain between the hated drug makers and corrupt members of Congress, DEA has made it very clear what happens when you cross them. If you wonder why so few lawmakers want to take on issues like police brutality, civil asset forfeiture, or even horrendously price gouging prison phone rates, this is why.
I explain in great detail below.

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Posted in How Democracy Works, Or Doesn't, I Fear These Things, Tales of the Sausage Factory | 1 Comment (Comments closed)

Tales of the Sausage Factory

What You Need To Know About the 2017 Wireless Competition Report.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman (FCC) Ajit Pai has put the 20th Wireless Competition Report on the agenda for the FCC’s September Open Meeting. Technically, the Wireless Competition Report is a non-rulemaking agency report to Congress, similar to the many reports the FCC does on everything from the prices paid for cable services to the state of the Satellite industry. But the Wireless Competition Report has become something of a big deal in recent years, owing to the refusal of the FCC since 2010 to find whether or not there is “effective competition” in the wireless industry. At the same time, then-FCC Chair Julius Genachowski moved the Wireless Competition Report (along with a number of other reports) from being a Commission-level item voted on by the full Commission to a Bureau-level item. This torked a bunch of people off. Those who regarded the wireless market as obviously not competitive saw all this as a failure of courage to call out the wireless market for its lack of competition. OTOH, those who consider the wireless market a paragon of competition derided this as a means for the regulation-mad Obama Administration to impose regulation on a clearly competitive and functioning market.

 

Either way, Pai is now putting it back at the Commission level and the Report is once again finding that we have “effective competition” — whatever that means. So it seems like a good time to run through the Wireless Competition Report, what it is, what it means, what it doesn’t mean, and how it gets used and/or abused. And, of course, how it relates to net neutrality, since everything in the freaking world relates to net neutrality these days.

 

Short version: the Report is non-binding on anything but overall provides a picture of the wireless industry by the expert agency charged by Congress to oversee the industry. It is therefore useful evidence for a lot of things ranging from merger approval to future regulatory initiatives. This years report also finds (surprise!) that although speeds have dramatically improved for mobile broadband, as has deployment generally, the level of investment by carriers dropped 9% from 2015 to 2016. How to measure this investment and how this should or should not impact the Title II debate I have dealt with extensively in this blog post, and therefore won’t spend too much time on it here.

 

Longer version below . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

My Insanely Long Field Guide To Common Carriage, Public Utility, Public Forum — And Why The Differences Matter.

Once upon a time, social conservatives used to be major allies on both limiting media consolidation and on net neutrality. Why? Because they recognized that if you had a handful of corporate gatekeepers controlling access to the marketplace of ideas, they could easily get shut out. Market forces being market forces, companies pressured to censor unpopular or controversial speech and views will do so. Add to that the belief on the part of conservatives that they face ideological bias from the “mainstream media” or “Silicon Valley,” and you had many conservatives back in the day who stood shoulder to shoulder with us back when I was at Media Access Project to oppose Powell’s efforts to relax media ownership rules in 2003 and who opposed Congress’ first attempt to gut net neutrality — the COPE Act — in 2006.

 

Then came the 2008 election and the Tea Party blowback of 2009-10. Net neutrality became a red team/blue team issue and even social conservatives who had previously supported net neutrality went silent on the issue.

 

Ironically, now that Republicans dominate all branches of government, conservatives are once again discovering the value of common carriage and government prohibition on any sort of interference with conduits of speech — at least with regard to social media platforms like Facebook, Youtube and Twitter. Why? As conservatives have once again discovered, if companies retain the right to exert editorial control based on content, they will get pressured by the market and government to use that editorial discretion to censor “harmful” speech. That, and the perception that Silicon Valley has a distinct liberal bias, have prompted some in the conservative movement to rediscover the idea that common carrier regulations actually protect and promote free speech and are not a regulation of speech. Because without access to the public square — whether the real life public square or its digital equivalent — your freedom of speech is simply a freedom to whisper to yourself.

 

I am happy to agree that the time has come to consider whether social media platforms — and other essential elements of communications such as operating systems, DNS registration, or content hosting — should have non-discrimination obligations consistent with our traditional concepts of common carriage. I believe this would also have the salutary effect of protecting companies from liability or social pressure by taking away their discretion. After all, we don’t see anyone demanding that the major mobile providers stop providing cell phones to white supremacists or that broadband providers block subscribers from accessing websites like Daily Stormer. The public accepts that these companies have no choice, because they are common carriers and must serve everyone equally as a matter of law. By contrast, we have seen successful campaigns to pressure DNS registrars to refuse to host the Daily Stormer domain name, Cloudflare, which itself decided to stop servicing Daily Stormer after Daily Stormer claimed that Cloudflare’s decision not to suspend service constituted an endorsement, posted this excellent blog post on why their actions should make people very uncomfortable.

 

So this should be a great time to reforge the Left/Right alliance on media diversity and government regulation to prevent private censorship, right? I hope so. Unfortunately, this very important conversation keeps getting muddled for two reasons.

 

1) People keep confusing the concept of “common carriage” with the concept of “public utility.” The differences actually matter a lot, despite 15 years of anti-net neutrality advocates muddling the two.

2) The most active proponents of using government regulation to prevent private censorship on the conservative side are pretty much treating common carrier regulation as a form of revenge porn rather than as a serious public policy debate. “Oh, you don’t want me? You want to break up with me? Well I’ll show you! I’ll make it so you have to carry me!” Indeed, since 2006, when Google (to my considerable annoyance) became the poster child for net neutrality for opponents and a trade press obsessed with treating every policy debate as an industry food fight, the debate about common carrier obligations or non-discrimination obligations or even privacy has always triggered a “but what about edge providers? Waaaaahhhhh!! Regulate them! Regulate them!”

 

Now I should make it very clear that I can find plenty of progressives who have conceived passionate hatreds for “Silicon Valley” platforms for various reasons, and who also get confused on the concept of “public utility.” Additionally, I can find at least some conservative free market types who understand why we need to regulate things like Internet access differently than hosting services or social media. But it’s conservatives lusting to regulate “Silicon Valley” that have been getting the headlines, and are driving the discussion among Republicans in Congress. Plus I’m getting tired of being asked the same stupid questions by the same folks on Twitter. So I’ll call out the conservatives howling for Silicon Valley blood by name.

 

Anyway, because whether and how to regulate various parts of the Internet supply chain (or, if you prefer, ecosystem), I will try to explain below why common carriage obligations, such as network neutrality, are different from public utility regulation (even though most utility providers are common carriers), which is different from natural monopoly regulated rate of return/tariffing/price regulation. I will briefly explore some of the arguments in favor of applying some sort of public forum doctrine or common carrier obligation to social media platforms, and — because this invariably comes up in telecom space — why platform or other infrastructure providers are not and should not be covered by Title II or the FCC, even if we agree they should have some sort of public forum or even public utility obligations.

 

More below . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Will Rural Texas Ever Get Its Phone Service Back After Harvey?

According to the official Federal Communications Commission (FCC) statics (current to August 30), Harvey is having a predictably significant impact on telecommunications in the path of its devastation. We won’t actually know the final damage for awhile yet, but it appears that cell sites are pretty much gone in the counties where Harvey made landfall (but service is being steadily restored). Over 265,000 landline phones have been rendered inoperative. No one expects a communications network to come through an epic flood like Harvey without serious disruption. Indeed, from the very surface look of things, it appears that the communications network in the impact area is performing much better than it did during either Katrina or Sandy.

 

But looking ahead, I have a different question. Once the floodwaters recede and the reconstruction begins, when can residents see their phone service — and broadband service — return. For rural residents of Texas still dependent on traditional landlines, the answer to that may be “never.”

 

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

My Response to Charlottesville.

I’m sorry this is off topic for this blog. It doesn’t have anything to do with telecom. But extraordinary events require a response, and now is when all of us who believe in the Rule of Law need to raise our voices.

 

The issue is not right v. left. The issue is those who believe in preserving the fundamental rights of protest and respecting the rule of law v. those who believe they are a law unto themselves.

 

Our country allows supporters of even the most evil, hateful ideologies to preach their beliefs on the principle that it is the right — nay, the duty — of those who oppose these beliefs to counter-protest. Let hundreds of hate-mongers, racists and antisemites gather to be confronted by tens of thousands of people appalled at their open embrace of evil. Let those who hate their fellow American shout their obscenities at the overwhelming masses of Americans counter-protesting. Let the world see that while a few thousands may be drawn to the “largest rally” of racists, fascists and Nazis wannabes, tens of thousands will rise in anger and condemnation.

 

It is those who turn to violence and view themselves as a law unto themselves that are “the other side.” To be clear, I do not speak of those who merely defend themselves. If an armed mob assaults protesters, then those assaulted have the right to defend themselves. No, the “other side” are those who think that they have been provoked so that the rule of law no longer applies. Those who think they are a law unto themselves, empowered to deal death and violence for their ‘sacred cause.’ These who consider themselves their own law, and those who encourage them, are the “other side.” They are the enemy that needs to be condemned.

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Why We Need Title II And Strong Net Neutrality Rules; Or, Fool Me Twice, Shame On Me. Fool Me Every Time — I’m the FCC!

As we slog away once again on Federal Communication Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai’s summer blockbuster reboot “Net Neutrality: The Mummy Returns!,” it’s worth noting in passing the anniversary a previous Pai celebration of industry self-regulation, #DitchTheBox. I bring this up not merely as a fairly bitter bit of Cassandrafreude, but to remind everyone why only those who most desperately want to believe ever put any faith in “industry self-regulation” — especially when that industry is the cable industry.

 

The cable operators, along with the telcos and other broadband access providers, all claim to loooove the basic idea of net neutrality and a “free and open Internet.” Mind you, we still have the occasional True Believer trying to tell us how good for us it would be if ISPs could “innovate” in exciting pricing plans like “screwing with your video streaming to charge you extra” or “blocking/degrading your efforts to access peer-to-peer applications without telling you.” But as an industry, the major broadband providers have recognized that they need some kind of fig leaf concession (preferably cemented into law by a compliant Congress). And so we have seen the cable companies falling all over themselves to swear their undying support for net neutrality and promises to do nothing to harm the open Internet.

 

So a brief review of the history of cable industry self-regulatory promises, and Chairman Pai’s willingness to believe them, seems in order for the day.

 

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